Based on “Undercover”—the first song I heard by The Chain Gang Of 1974—I was excited, fully expecting the album Wayward Fire to be crammed with lush, moody, ’80s-influenced synthy dance pop. (Even the cover art reminds me of Echo and The Bunnymen’s Songs To Learn And Sing.) Since my teen years were spent listening to the original incarnation of that style of music, I’m glad that so many bands are redefining the sound as a genre of its own, not just some passing fad. Yet, Wayward Fire is not what I expected.
Opening track “Stop” pits repetitive synth explosions against acoustic guitar and a funky bass line. It’s not until the song’s practically over that the airy keyboards and sampled female vocals begin. It’s quite a refreshing and intriguing combination, but one wholly unanticipated.
“The Devil Is A Lady” is even more mystifying, culling heavy guitar riffs, sexified vocals, and processed drum beats direct from Death From Above 1979′s playbook, along with a chorus that is straight-up Electric Six, complete with falsetto vocals. As someone who is fond of both bands (and thrilled that Electric Six could be viewed as their own influential genre of music), this is in no way an insult; the song is great. Upon my initial listening, however, I did wonder if “Undercover” was some kind of fluke from an album that wouldn’t deliver on a single’s promise.
Then, “Hold On,” which is a truly gorgeous Giorgio Moroder/Italo Disco-influenced track, swirled into my eardrums, with its celestial piano and echoing vocals completely blowing my mind. At eight minutes-plus, it serves as its own extended remix, an awfully ballsy move, and one that I respect wholeheartedly.
With “Heartbreakin’ Scream” and “Taste of Heaven,” the ’80s vibe becomes almost overwhelming. It feels like the DNA of the Pretty In Pink soundtrack was somehow been isolated and introduced to a sample of Erasure’s DNA to create these two songs.
Yet, “Matter of Time” single-handedly saves the day, opening with a catchy bass beat and some retro-even-by-eighties-standards keyboards, and proceeding into another excellent chorus and more falsetto vocals from singer Kamtin Mohager. And just like that, I’m back on the bandwagon.
Hearing “Undercover” again reminded me why I wanted to hear the album in the first place. It has an instantly memorable falsetto vocal motif which is contrasted against Mohager’s deeper, throatier sounding tones in the verses and chorus. It’s an absolutely fantastic song, perfect for getting ready, driving to the club, and losing yourself inside of it on the dance floor.
The hits keep coming with the moody heartbreak of the New Order/Psychedelic Furs-sounding “Teenagers.” There’s a definite Jesus & Mary Chain/Primal Scream thing happening in “Ethical Drugs” which is far more intoxicating than any dance floor single has a right to be, especially when Mohager’s vocals start to evoke both Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith from Tears For Fears.
There’s more than a taste of Talk Talk and even Shriekback in “Tell Me,” while the album’s closer, “Don’t Walk Away,” is another wonderful track, like a missing OMD or Alphaville song, so by this point, I was flabbergasted, wondering, “How old are these people?” and “Are they young enough to be my actual children?”
As it turns out, the Chain Gang of 1974 is just the one guy: Kamtin Mohager (age 26), who serves as singer, songwriter, and performer. In addition to being a major overachiever, a glance at his bio reveals that his influences are disparate indeed, including Tears For Fears, Talk Talk, LCD Soundsystem, Primal Scream, The Raveonettes, and Ryan Adams.
While I hate to disparage or discourage any one with this much love for ’80s synthy-dance pop and Mohager’s obvious, insane level of talent, I must be honest. “Stop” and “The Devil Is A Lady” are great tunes, but nothing approaching the levels of greatness of the second half of Wayward Fire. Even the amazing “Hold On” sounds like it doesn’t quite fit in with the last five songs. My ambivalence towards “Heartbreakin’ Scream” and “Taste of Heaven” is due to my distaste for that particularly overblown sound back when it was actually current, and not meant as an insult to Mohager’s songwriting and performance capabilities.
I wholeheartedly recommend Wayward Fire to anyone who has never grown tired of ’80s synthy-dance pop because it more than succeeds at carrying the torch. Although there are songs I find to be slightly less than stellar, it’s not on the song’s own merits but how they fit with the rest of the album. At any rate, they are only a slight handicap to the album’s tremendousness and if you don’t check out Wayward Fire, you will be doing yourself a major disservice.
I still can’t believe that The Chain Gang of 1974 is one person, much less that it’s 2011 and someone is making music like this again. I will definitely keep an eye on this band. I look forward to Kamtin Mohager’s future creative pursuits, not to mention the joy of listening to Wayward Fire about a thousand more times.
Tuesday, June 21: Seattle, WA @ Neumos w/ Cibo Matto
Wednesday, June 22: Vancouver, BC @ Fortune Sound Club w/ Cibo Matto
Thursday, June 23: Portland, OR @ Doug Fir Lounge w/ Cibo Matto
Saturday, June 25: San Francisco, CA @ Bimbos 365 Club
Friday, July 8: Los Angeles, CA @ Echoplex w/ Washed Out, Class Actress
Saturday, July 9: San Francisco, CA @ Great American Music Hall w/ Washed Out, Class Actress
Monday, Aug. 1: Morrison, CO @ Red Rocks Amphitheatre
Saturday, Aug. 6: Chicago, IL @ Lollapalooza
Saturday, Aug. 13: Fort Collins, CO @ Bohemian Nights at 262 E. Mountain Ave.
Friday, Aug. 19: Salt Lake City, UT @ Urban Lounge w/ Tapes ‘n Tapes
Saturday, Aug. 20: Boise, ID @ Neurolux w/ Tapes ‘n Tapes
Monday, Aug. 22: Vancouver, BC @ Biltmore Cabaret w/ Tapes ‘n Tapes
Tuesday, Aug. 23: Seattle, WA @ Crocodile Cafe w/ Tapes ‘n Tapes
Wednesday, Aug. 24: Portland, OR @ Doug Fir Lounge w/ Tapes ‘n Tapes
Friday, Aug. 26: San Francisco, CA @ The Independent w/ Tapes ‘n Tapes
Sunday, Aug. 28: San Diego, CA @ Casbah w/ Tapes ‘n Tapes
Tuesday, Aug. 30: Tucson, AZ @ Club Congress w/ Tapes ‘n Tapes